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Homeschooling Life Outside: Simple Ways to Learn Outdoors

Homeschooling Life

Homeschooling. The very word that sent shivers down the spine of many a mom at the start of the pandemic is now part of their normal daily vocabulary. For others, the idea of spending quality time in nature was a foreign concept until there was nothing to do but go outside.

Both homeschooling and nature schooling have exploded in popularity in recent years, as families try to combine the best of these worlds.

Three children journal and color on a residential front porch.
My children work on journals on our front porch.

Homeschooling Life: Fall is wonderful for schooling outside!

Fall is an incredible time to be outside. You don’t have to be a homeschool parent to enjoy the beautiful weather and relish time with fewer bugs—once the yellow jackets and mosquitos disappear, that is. There are so many life skills to be learned and changing environments to explore. It’s a perfect time of year to build good outdoor habits before temperatures, darkness, and holiday busyness descend.

Many parents, including myself, dream of idyllic fall days that inspire deep learning in our children’s hearts. It’s a privilege to be able to participate so closely in our children’s lives.

The freedom to educate while immersed in nature is such a blessing, but it can feel like a curse, however, when that burden of inspiration falls squarely on our shoulders.

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Two young children inspect the changing colors of a maple leaf.
My children inspect a changing leaf on a hike.

School outside is easy…right?

I long to spend more time engaging in nature. That has always drawn me as a homeschool parent, even as I bought box kits full of worksheets and taught my young children cursive writing and math facts while sitting at a table.

However, even though I love the outdoors, nature-focused, hands-on curriculums were beyond what I felt like I could realistically handle while bearing 7 children in 10 years, in our urban home.

“School outside is easy! Just go outside!”  Is this a refrain that has echoed from the homeschoolers in your life? There is little more frustrating than being told something is easy and instructions aren’t needed when it is hard for YOU.

Learning outside can be overwhelming, for so many reasons. I mentioned a challenge for my own family—multiple outings a week, even just to a nearby city park, and lots of focused attention from me while pregnant, nursing, or caring for very small people seemed impossible, and honestly, sometimes still does.

A girl sits on a large rock in the middle of a shallow creek.
My middle daughter on a creek-stomping hike.

Challenges can be many and varied.

Is this actually school?

Blending outdoors and education may not come naturally if you grew up in a traditional school setting. Exchanging time at a desk or table for a nature walk can feel like you are trading learning for playing rather than joining them together. Your spouse or other relatives may be skeptical that enough “real school” is taking place if you spend too much of your day outside.

A girl read a plaque about American Indian village structures with replica structures in the background.
Learning about Indiana history at a state park.

Options are intimidating and overwhelming.

Maybe swapping a classroom-style experience for a natural environment is one you have been on board with your entire life, but the options for how to handle it are overwhelming! So many Instagram pages and elegant websites share beautifully curated nature school printables chock full of ways to educate children about mushrooms, birds nests, leaf shapes. How do you know how to choose a path that will work well for your unique family?

Busy life challenges.

Or maybe your challenges are completely different. Those nature school bundles would work great for your eight year old, but you also have a 10th grader fighting his way through geometry, or who needs a ride to soccer practice.

Maybe you work part or full time and want to learn outside with your children but can’t spend your evenings and weekends on another curriculum. Perhaps, like most people in the United States, you live in a city or municipal area and feel limited by accessibility.

It’s also so easy to feel like we aren’t doing enough, or at least not doing enough of the right things. It isn’t possible to do everything, so how can we pursue a love of outdoor learning while also actually learning? What are the components for success?

Several children listen to an American Indian storyteller.
Several of my children listen to an American Indian storyteller.

The ingredients for success are few!

You probably already have what you need at home! Who has read that before, maybe in an online recipe, and been let down? In this case, the key ingredient you need to school outside really is one already in your home—a parent who sees the value in it and wants it for their children.

The second ingredient is simply something you enjoy about the outdoors. Those are the only two essentials needed to step into outdoor education!

It’s not necessary to be Outdoorsy Mom Extreme.

I’m 39. At 30, I vowed I would never walk to the library with the kids again because it was too far and too hard. It’s one mile away. I didn’t know what the word “backpacking” meant. I had gone skiing one time and walked down the green run because I was too scared.

We did take our kids camping, but I usually held down the fort at the campsite with the baby during hikes or joined partway through. But I loved the outdoors and loved how my children thrived in it!

Two girls happily stand on a fence and pet a cow while it drinks from a water trough.
My daughters enjoy petting a cow at the state fair.

Begin with your interests.

What do you enjoy about getting outside? Start with your own interests! A parent that is excited about the material they are teaching is going to convey a love of learning, stick with the material more cheerfully and easily, and is likely to be a more engaging teacher for their children. Incorporate your child or children’s interests as well and you have a minimum of two topics to explore.

Strength training and endurance

Is your outdoor interest related to exercise? Involve your children in swimming, biking, running, or maybe all three! Many cities have youth triathlons, clubs for running or other outdoor sports, or public parks with equipment to train muscles.

USA Triathlon’s Youth page is an easy way to find events or clubs near you. If your children are small, go to a playground and create an obstacle course or play follow the leader. Actually, that one’s fun even if you have teenagers! Look up your local parks and recreation department to find new parks and you might be surprised at what you find nearby.

Four children hold up ribbons while wearing competition bibs.
My oldest children after finishing a local triathlon.

Wildlife exploration

Maybe you prefer to dive into local flora and fauna. Whether you live in a city center or remote wilderness, there are plants and animals around! Print off a sheet of native plants and animals or use these Julia Rothman “Anatomy” books, go for a walk and see what you can find and identify.

I did this with my children, including my high schooler, and was impressed by how much everyone observed and remembered on future outings!

A teenage girl writes on a clipboard in the middle of a bare winter forest.
My oldest daughter checks off tree types from a list of local plant life.

Survival Skills

Perhaps survival skills are more the experience you want. Practice fire-building, then cook dinner over it—maybe have some sandwiches on hand the first few times. Learn how to read a map, whether to climb a mountain or to navigate a couple of miles on city sidewalks.

Build and test a water filter. Start where your interests are, and once you are comfortable there, you can expand to new horizons as yours and your children’s interests have room to grow.

Just being outside

There is also nothing wrong with just wanting to be outside because you enjoy the fresh air and sunshine! With your children, practice using all five senses to note what you see, smell, hear, feel, and maybe even taste. Read a nature-centric chapter book that accentuates that sort of thinking.

The Chronicles of Narnia, particularly The Magician’s Nephew is an excellent choice for elementary-age children, and provides lots of sensory language while you read outdoors.

The Read-Aloud Revival has wonderful book lists for children of all ages—and keep in mind that even older kids can learn a lot from picture books!

Several children lay on a blanket in the grass listening to a book.
Reading outloud to my children in a downtown park.

Easy +1

My favorite homeschool curriculum author, Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, champions the idea of “Easy +1.” He uses the concept to help struggling writers; I see it as applicable in many areas of life!

Don’t try to add so many new and potentially challenging outdoor ideas that none of them end up being successful. Pick an area where you are already comfortable and succeeding, and stretch one more step from there.

Interests are big but children are small.

My first camping trip alone with my children was in our backyard and we “hiked” half a mile to the stormwater overflow creek down the street. You can shrink the scope as needed!

Walk around the block counting the number of robins you can spot or have a front porch picnic and watch cloud shapes. As your family grows, the range of where and how you can learn together outside will grow too, with a foundation already laid.

Physical limitations

If you are particularly physically limited, due to nursing, health challenges, disabilities, or any other short- or long-term reason, homeschooling outdoors can still be for you! Reading as mentioned, as well as creating art projects using grass, sticks, and colorful leaves, or building fairy houses are all great ways to engage with nature while staying put.

A teenage girl works on a colorful drawing of a cardinal.
My second daughter sketches on a camping trip.

We enjoy what we know about.

There is a scene in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma where Mr. Knightley insists he won’t dance at Emma’s ball. His reasoning? “I don’t enjoy dancing, I’m not good at it.” This idea carries over to many things in our lives—when we understand something, we enjoy it more.

As an Indiana born-and-bred, I enjoy just about any basketball game because I know the rules backwards and forwards, but when rules in other sports are confusing, it’s a lot less fun to watch or play.

Set the stage by preparing ahead.

The same can often be said for home education. That doesn’t mean that we have to know all about something before we can try it, or that we need every step to be laid out, but preparing ahead even just a little can provide a lower threshold of entry for our children to learn.

Consider how you can set the stage for learning outside. I mentioned above printing off sheets of local wildlife or prompts for us to ponder while out; those are a couple of my favorite ways to plan ahead for an outdoor field trip and they take very little advance knowledge from me for us all to benefit. The Nature Journaler has a lovely monthly newsletter with prompts on how to appreciate nature seasonally.

Three girls sit on a bridge with paint sets and work on art projects.
My younger daughters paint during a art and nature field trip.

Utilize state and national resources!

I also love to prepare for a big outdoor adventure by reading library books about the animals and wildlife we will encounter. If you are visiting a national or state park this upcoming year, check out the park’s website. I have been very impressed by the well-thought-out educational resources provided.

We enjoyed these Ecology projects from the Grand Canyon Conservancy, and this blubber glove experiment from NOAA was a fun way to prepare for our visit to Alaska!

Join forces with an outdoor-schooling friend.

If you have a friend who always seems to find the best parks and do the coolest outdoor projects, ask to do a field trip or activity with both of your families. If you don’t have that friend yet, but another mom you know is interested, join forces and create that field trip together.

It can be a lot easier to try something new if you have the support of a friend. Additionally, the accountability can propel you forward, when alone you might hesitate.

And we learn about what we enjoy!

The reverse of the above can also be true! If something in nature piques the interest of your family while you are out, make a note of it and research it after the fact! Reading a picture book in the library about an opossum with babies on its back will hit home more if you recently saw an opossum with babies on its back. Kids will love seeing something in a book or online that they recognize from real life experience.

A teenage girl poses with a plaque of information about red pandas while a red panda walks on a tree branch in the background.
My oldest posing with her zoo research project animal.

We once went to the zoo and everyone chose an animal to research and present. My kids still bring that up years later as something they relished doing. It wasn’t that creative or special of an idea, but they loved pursuing knowledge of an interest. The National Wildlife Federation has lots of incredible free resources, including a wildlife guide and lesson plans that make it easy for you to research after being outside.

Nature schooling is as different as each family.

We still practice cursive writing and learn math facts sitting at a table. I have a high schooler starting chemistry this year. Homeschooling in nature doesn’t mean you have to turn into the Bird Woman of the Limberlost, or no longer find value in algebra and a well-written, grammatically-advanced research essay.

Homeschooling outside does not have to be instead of traditional subjects, but including it in your home education will help provide your children with a well-rounded wealth of learning experiences.

A girl reads an outdoor memorial plaque honoring soldiers who died serving in World War II.
Visiting the war memorials in our downtown park.

Homeschooling outdoors with your family may look completely different than anyone else that you know. Maybe your friends are all homesteaders, and you do all worksheets and one nature walk a month. My sister raises goats and rabbits, and my family likes to bike to urban historical monuments. It might feel like nature schooling means you must go backpacking every weekend and have a bookshelf full of John Muir books, but you can absolutely homeschool outside effectively and have no idea who he is.

Learning outside is a lifelong habit.

The proverb, “Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” is absolutely true in your journey to homeschool your children outside. The journey won’t be completed by you, and it won’t be completed by them.

You are leading their first steps in learning outside, and every step you take puts them farther on a path toward knowing and understanding their world. What is challenging for you may become what is easy for them.

A small boy stands and a young girl sits next to a shallow pool of water at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
My youngest children during a walk through the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

Your children will grow while learning outside.

I love to dream about my own kids as enthusiastic and capable outdoorspeople, who don’t shy away from new experiences and finding their own fit in nature, because that is what they learned and developed as children in our home. Now that I have teenagers, that dream is turning into a reality! As we practice learning and exploring outside, what was once an innate skill waiting for cultivation becomes a lifelong habit.

You will grow while learning outside.

Remember that 30 year old who was never walking to the library again? At 37, I went on my first backpacking trip, and now we take our kids regularly. At 38, I attempted riding a snowboard for the first time. When I’m 41, our family plans to hike 2200 miles together on the Appalachian Trail. Never in a million years did 30-year-old me think we were a decade away from that! Small steps forward in nature cover a huge amount of ground!

Four children look out over the Smoky Mountains while wearing backpacking gear.
Four of my kids during a recent backpacking trip to the Smoky Mountains.

Nature School Mom

You may not feel like you can go by the name “nature school mom” or “outdoor homeschooler”, but by recognizing your personal interest in the outdoors and including that in your family’s education, you are already there. Set the stage and plant the seeds for a beautiful future harvest of nature-engaged children. Even in the face of challenges, it truly can be simple to homeschool outside!

Additional resources for outdoor learning

Homeschooling Life: Homeschooling Outdoors

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